In 1999, we published a feature story that followed biologist Jonathan Proctor around the northern Great Plains as he tried to convince ranchers that prairie dogs are beneficial for their land. Proctor’s a tall guy, but his task was undoubtedly taller, if not colossally unrealistic. Affectionately termed “range rats” by some, prairie dogs are one of the most contentious species in the West – arguably on par with wolves – primarily because they eat grass ranchers would rather see disappear into the rumens of their cows. ESPN, for instance, encourages shooting prairie dogs for sport.
In 2009, though, after a decade-long effort from Proctor and nearly five years of government-led negotiations involving numerous proposed management alternatives, draft revisions, and sit-downs with private landowners, the U.S. Forest Service announced a new management plan that involved translocating – instead of killing – a colony of black-tailed prairie dogs from the edge of private ranch land to a core recovery area within northeast Wyoming’s Thunder Basin National Grassland.
And now, three months of fieldwork, 550 prairie dogs, and 192 acres of new habitat later, the move is mostly complete. It’s the first-ever prairie dog relocation project carried out by the Forest Service on a national grassland, and the first large-scale one performed on public land. No small feat in the Cowboy State. The primary motivation for the relocation is the highly endangered black-footed ferret, a species which depends on prairie dogs for over 90% of its diet, and which the Forest Service hopes to reintroduce to the newly established prairie dog colony as early as next fall.
When I heard about the project in July, I packed my bags, jumped in my truck, and headed for the prairie. Most of my early years as a wildlife biologist, after all, were spent mapping prairie dog colonies on the Great Plains, spotlighting for black-footed ferrets, and trying to better understand the complexity of an ecosystem inhabited by a keystone species like the prairie dog. True, the story held unique personal interest for me, but once I hit the road, the historical significance of what was happening on the ground in northeast Wyoming took center stage.
For nearly a century, the feds have actively poisoned prairie dogs and the state has maintained an open recreational shooting policy (in most places, permits aren’t required), classifying the rodents as “nongame.” Combine this with a history of sylvatic plague outbreaks and the black-tailed prairie dog now occupies less than two percent of its original range. It's a bold philosophical shift, then, for the Forest Service to not just publicly acknowledge the "vermin" as an integral player in the prairie landscape, but to also marshal a collaborative inter-agency plan to restore the species on a national grassland.
My trip exposed many sides to this groundbreaking effort, as I sat down with private landowners, endangered species biologists, hunters, and agency officials to discuss the project’s criticisms, merits, and implications. You can view photos from the field, read interview excerpts, and more in a forthcoming HCN magazine story.
In the meantime, let’s all reminisce about how fun it used to be to shoot prairie dogs, since on parts of Thunder Basin National Grassland, it’s now illegal. The Forest Service wants ecological balance.
Apologies, Seekers of the Red Mist.
Adam Petry is a High Country News intern.